Lenny Wilkens, head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, stepped to the podium, sat down in front of the microphones, and looked around at the assembled members of the media. With that ever-startling New York accent of his–part gym rat, part Billy Crystal–he said, “I’m glad all of you showed up.” He then began to try to explain how his team had looked so flat in the first game of the National Basketball Association Eastern Conference semifinals against the Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls entered the best-of-seven series looking promising but for the most part untested, and emerged from it looking as strong as they had in two years. The Bulls stormed through the first three games of the series dominating every facet of every game, and finished Cleveland off last Monday on Jordan’s sequel to the Shot. They showed the old determination on defense, but with new strategic wrinkles; they were multifaceted on offense, with one of those facets being the old single-faceted Michael Jordan and his “supporting cast.” What’s more, they were back to playing those head games they excel at in the head-to-head confrontations of the playoffs.

It’s true, what the Detroit players and fans have said in recent years: the Pistons taught the Bulls how to win, taught them that advancing in the playoffs was a matter of not just physical but mental intimidation. Yet the Bulls are now so much better at the mental game than the Pistons ever were–just as they are so much better in nearly all elements of the game–that it’s hardly worth citing the Detroit dynasty as a source of inspiration. The Bulls crushed the Cavs–physically, mentally, and emotionally–and had them completely befuddled by the end of game three, last Saturday. These Bulls play basketball the way Bobby Fischer used to play chess: they not only play a demanding game from a purely technical standpoint, they engage the opponent’s psyche in a test of wills. As Fischer used to explain his tactics: “I like to see ’em squirm.” The Bulls take the same sort of pleasure in exploiting an opponent’s self-doubt.

It’s a game that’s made for the playoffs, with the increase in media scrutiny and the league’s demand that all teams grant liberal media access. And it’s a game that comes so naturally to the Bulls that they may not even realize they’re playing it anymore. The Bulls’ leaking their scouting report on the Portland Trail Blazers before last year’s finals–they’ll choke if we show them how–seemed a deliberate attempt to sic the media on an opponent. Wilkens and his counterpart, Phil Jackson, had an indirect confrontation in their media interviews after game one that put the Cavs under the same sort of pressure.

One of the things Wilkens first had to explain was why he had “benched” All-Star guard Mark Price over the last seven minutes. “I didn’t bench Mark Price, OK?” he snapped. “Terrell Brandon came in and was playing real well and did an excellent job while he was out there on the floor. I didn’t feel that I could put two small guards on the court at the same time. But I thought Terrell got up, penetrated, dished the ball off, and if you were watching the same game I was watching you would’ve seen that also.”

Yet such a decision is so unsound as to be almost not worthy of analysis. Price is the Cavs’ point guard, one of the best in the league at his position, and whenever healthy he gives the Bulls fits. To keep him on the bench in the closing minutes of a fairly close game is sort of like allowing Ozzie Guillen to hit with two out and two on in the bottom of the ninth, trailing 6-3, even though Bo Jackson is on the bench, simply because Guillen got a bloop hit the last time up. As for paying attention to the game, Wilkens evidently didn’t see Brandon called for traveling with 100 seconds to play, after the Cavs had cut an 11-point Bulls’ lead down to 5 and, at that point, 7.

When Jackson was asked about Price sitting out the last few minutes he responded immediately, “He had to be hurt.”

Now, NBA coaches in the playoffs tend to indulge in games of cloak and dagger, concealing injuries and muddying strategy. They know the opposing team is going to determine soon enough what’s working and what’s not without them blabbing about it to reporters. To interpret Wilkens’s comments, he was saying he was going with the hot hand, that Price–who had been rumored to be suffering from a hand or elbow injury (he had ice on his elbow for part of that stint on the bench)–was healthy. The interpretation of Jackson’s remarks was clear: either Price was hurt, Lenny, or you’re a lousy coach. And the media picked up on that; they wanted to know what it was, one or the other. So Wilkens and Price spent the day off between the first and second games defending the former’s coaching and the latter’s health.

The source of this mental strength in the Bulls, I believe, is Jordan. He excels at creating challenges for himself, and he enjoys putting challenges to opponents to see how they’ll react. He spoke after that first game about how he had been charged up by the Cavs’ Gerald Wilkins, who had said before the series that he was the man brought in to stop Jordan defensively and get Cleveland over the Jordan curse that has plagued the team ever since the Shot in the 1989 playoffs. Jordan made it plain he had heard Wilkins’s quotes through the media: “I felt the Jordan-stopper had a tough night tonight.”

Jordan had a game-high 43 points in the Bulls’ 91-84 victory. As Wilkins said after the game, “I could see it in his eyes that he wasn’t coming out to get assists.”

Are the Bulls susceptible to airing their own self-doubts in the media? They have been in the past–it was part of what made last year’s championship run so (melo)dramatic–but they’ve been steely this playoff season. An out-of-town beat writer went up to John Paxson after the game and asked him if he was disturbed that Jordan had scored almost half the team’s points.

“Nope,” said Paxson.

Awkward pause. Why not?

“‘Cause it’s happened before and it’ll happen again,” he said. “When you get in a half-court situation and he’s rolling, what’re you gonna do, go away from him?

“You tell me, how do you go away from a guy when he’s on a roll like that, he’s got the competitiveness there and he’s got the fire in his eyes and he wants to win.

“I’ve been with him for eight years, and I guess I’ve seen it all. There are games like this. With a Michael Jordan you are going to have games like this.”

Ever and always, but it’s only been in the last few seasons that Jordan has had games like the second of the series. Knowing that the Cavs would no doubt retailor their game plan to stop him, he got his teammates out of the chutes quick. Jordan didn’t score until ten minutes into the game, when he gave the Bulls a 25-19 lead with a basket. By that time Horace Grant–who had sprained an ankle in the first game–had his feet under him and was on his way to a team-high 20 points on perfect shooting from the floor and the foul line, and Scottie Pippen was reestablished as an offensive threat. The Cavs were clearly no more ready to play than they had been in the first game. At one point, Brad Daugherty missed a layup on a three-on-none fast break; Stacey King, trailing the play, came down with the rebound and hurried it back up-court, where Jordan buried a jumper. The Bulls led by 15 at the half and doubled that lead in the third quarter on the way to a 104-85 victory.

Even so, the Bulls couldn’t be described as coasting to that second win. Grant limped off the court to a standing ovation in the third quarter, and Jordan followed him after aggravating a sprained right wrist that has bothered him on and off all season. Both nevertheless played and played well in the third game. Were they, in fact, faking injury to throw off the Cavs? That seems a bit much for any conspiracy theorist to believe, but the fact is the Bulls did their best to eke whatever advantage they could from Grant and Jordan’s uncertain status, keeping the Cavs up in the air about whether they would face the Bulls at full strength. Jordan played mind games right up through the point when he stepped on the court for that third game, shaking hands all around left-handed before the tipoff.

Game three was the Cavs’ last chance to make a stand; the Bulls took their best punch in the first half and came back, closing a double-digit deficit to three at intermission. As they have in every game of the playoffs, they came out like monsters after the break and blew the Cavs off the court. Jordan, who had favored his right wrist throughout the first half, started hitting his jump shot again and the Cavs never had a chance. They regained the lead through three quarters, but the Bulls now had the initiative and kept it.

How muddled were the Cavs? At one point in the fourth quarter they had power forward Larry Nance mismatched with Jordan down in the low post. Yet Wilkins couldn’t get him the ball and instead forced up a three-point shot. It missed and the Bulls got the rebound.

The problem with the Bulls’ next opponent–almost certainly the New York Knicks–is that the Knicks, like the Bulls, play in a media center and are well-versed in the heightened attention they’ll receive. They also have a coach, Pat Riley, who is as skilled at playing those media machinations as any member of the Bulls. The Bulls will lobby for the referees to call a tight series; the Knicks will respond that they are simply a physical team, not dirty, and that they can’t play the Bulls with their hands tied.

The Bulls will win in six games, not because of their media savvy but because they will outplay the Knicks. Against both Dominique Wilkins and the Atlanta Hawks and Price and the Cavs, the Bulls displayed a ferocious and unpredictable double-teaming defense. No one player is double-teaming the ball; the closest man moves over and everyone else rotates, and the Bulls are playing that rapid-rotation defense as well as they’ve ever played it. On offense, they have removed the pinch points the Knicks spotted a year ago. The Bulls are increasingly running the triangle offense from a high post, with Cartwright out by the free-throw line, a technique that seems designed to beat the Knicks. They are increasingly running B.J. Armstrong around screens– especially around the repositioned Cartwright, into the lane–to free him for open shots, a tactic that was not available to them with the relatively immobile Paxson as a starting point guard. And Cartwright himself, after being nursed through the season, is playing as well as he ever has with the Bulls. He manhandled Daugherty, allowing the Bulls to concentrate their double-team schemes on Price and take the ball out of his hands.

All season the Bulls suggested they were holding much in reserve for the playoffs. It’s a cocky, dangerous attitude for a team to have, and it takes a team of great mental strength to pull it off.

The Bulls and the Knicks are the two best teams in the league. Whoever wins that series will win the championship.